CONTINENTAL SHIFT

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This post may turn into a bit of a ramble. I realise as I sit down to write, that there are a lot of thoughts and feelings swirling around inside me, which may find their way out. Feelings about life, both my own and in general. Thoughts about place, identity, experience. Things of that nature. In certain ways, this is a love story. There is a romantic dimension to be sure, but it is also about love for life, love for oneself and an enquiry into the subtle aspects of experience, which translate themselves into larger more profound forces in our lives. So bear with me whilst I let forth. Perhaps some sense will be made of some things, perhaps not. No matter. Make of it what you will.

So where on earth to begin with this... Well, I am British. I was born, and grew up in London, England. As a child, a sense of national identity began to form at quite an early age. I started to realise, “Oh… I am from here. This is my place. This is my home.” I began to look at things and to ask myself: “What does that mean? Who am I? What am I a part of?” I think we begin to invest in our identity; to look for things to like about it and be proud of. To find things which might be unique to our particular culture; which set ‘our’ collective apart from other collectives. This helps us to further identify, and gain a sense of place in the international fabric of our global community.

In my case, I am English. When I realised this I remember I started finding pleasure in the fact that although we are all individuals, there is also a sense of oneness and belonging we can have with our fellow countrymen. We share inherent qualities which are the culmination of centuries of indigenous culture. There is comfort in that. In many ways, this is the meaning of Home. With a capital H.

But there’s more to life than home. A lot more.

Concurrent to my embedded experience of unfolding as an English boy, I was also being influenced by an awareness of the world outside my own country. For the most part through television, radio, books, movies and music (I can only imagine what it would have been like had I been exposed, as my children now are, to the volume of content the internet provides. But that is a whole subject in itself and best left for another time). Anyway, by far and away the biggest source for those influences was, and continues to be a country named The United States of America.

I needn’t go to great lengths to explain quite how influential that side of the Atlantic has been to this. Anyone who is reading this will know what I’m talking about when I say that without American arts and culture, the world would be a very different place. Imagine movies without Hollywood. Imagine music without… wow, I don’t even know where to start. You get the picture. The point is, as both child and adult I have always been conscious of this larger-than-life, geographically enormous and wonderfully enticing force-of-nature of a place. A place incidentally with which the British, my own people, have quite some historical entwinement.

When I was young I simply assumed that of course, when I grew up I would go there. I mean, how could I not? I would have money because that’s what adults have, and I would pay for holidays because that’s what adults do, and one place I would most certainly go would be America. Simple.

Yeah... well... not to put too fine a point on it, it didn’t work out that way. Life happened. Years rolled by and I found myself in my middle forties (WTAF!?), still not having made that trip. Even once. Dreams somewhat tarnished if not in tatters, I started to re-frame my expectations. Hmm... Ok, so maybe I won’t go there until I’m an old man. Maybe, just maybe, I won’t go there at all in this here lifetime. I would be sad about that but it wouldn’t be all bad. The place is pretty damn present in my life regardless. I feel unavoidably connected to it through all the aforementioned vehicles, and thanks to the combination of the Internet and my un-ending pursuit of all things photographic, through social media feeds and podcasts it is there more or less ubiquitously in my daily affairs. Impossible to ignore, and in many ways a very welcome interloper.

So there I was. Coming to terms with my revised version of reality, keeping my head down and getting on with life…

Then, like a bolt from the blue, whatever sublime force it is that weaves the pattern of our continuum saw fit to deal me a card I truly did not see coming. A uniquely wonderful and special person literally walked into my house and into my life. Bam. I fell suddenly and deeply in love. And, well guess what. She’s American.

There’s a lot I could say at this point. Really. A lot. But honestly, some of it is straight up private and should be held as such. Plus it would be a departure from the thread we are on here and you really don’t need to hear me gush about those particular intimate dimensions of my heart.  Suffice it to say that things have changed. Fundamentally and radically. This will have far-reaching effects on multiple aspects of my life moving forward but put simply, in a hot minute I went from the situation described above, to finding myself landing on American soil and breathing American air for the first time in my life. Woah. What a trip. Head spinning? A little bit, but in the best possible way.

It’s hard to know where or how to start relating my experience of arriving, after all that time wondering whether I’d ever make it at all. Aside from the obvious and overriding reason that took me there, the many quiet internally lived encounters with all things from the big, in-your-face and obvious, all the way down to the tiny details which perhaps only you notice will be personal to every individual. For me, it was an altogether comfortable immersion. As I say, a lifetime of input in one form or another, has brought me to a point of such familiarity that actually being there first hand felt completely natural. Like stepping into a neighbours house on the same street.. you may never have been inside before but there are no real surprises. Things are much as you expect to find them. Having said that, I also lost count of the amount of times I said to myself… “Oh my god, I’m in America!”.

I think the two main aspects of the country that excite me (as with anywhere I suppose) are the land, and the people.

What can I say about the land… It’s mind boggling. The grandeur and diversity of the geography is like nothing I have ever seen before, and we barely scratched the surface having only spent a small amount of time in two neighbouring states, Oregon and California, both of which are vast in their own right. Nevertheless, we saw mountains, high desert, hills, hot springs, lava beds, forests, giant redwoods, rolling coastlines and more. But it’s the sheer scale of it that blows my mind. It just goes on, and on and on. Like Gods own amusement park… I look forward to further adventures in the future.

And then we have the people. This part is important.

Growing up with all of the positive innovations and contributions coming out of American arts and science has been a good experience for me. But I was always aware of a certain disdain for Americans themselves. This served as the negative counterpoint to all that was great and good. Speaking with sweeping generalisation it should be understood, there was, and still is in the world a perception of American people as being brash, arrogant, kind of shallow, self-centred and a bit xenophobic. This, I’m sad to say, is the image that was fed to me as a child, and was perpetuated somewhat by those around me as I moved into adulthood. Now, I have always been one who tends to make my own mind up about things based on my own experience. But I know, at least when I was younger, I bought the story to some degree… I refer back to what I was saying earlier about finding comfort and safety in one’s own identity. Feeling a part of one’s own people; one’s own culture. There is a shadow side to this, which I postulate can foster an unhealthy ‘us and them’ mentality. A thing that I now believe strongly to be at the root of almost all of the world’s problems in one way or another. As such, this is something we should be ruthlessly looking for ways to eradicate. But i digress, albeit only a little.

In point of fact, and in short, my own experience is very different. I find Americans to be open-hearted, infectiously positive, impressively productive, interesting, interested, life-loving people. Again, I’m generalising but there it is. I originally began to form this opinion a long time back, and for many different reasons. And lately, over the last few years through listening to podcasts. That might sound strange, so let me explain. I’m a photo nerd. A camera geek. Unabashed. And I have probably heard hundreds of hours of interviews, conversations and discussions on the subject from people inside the photography community. The vast majority of which come out of America. Through the course of time I’ve felt connected to and overwhelmingly struck by the self confident, boundlessly enthusiastic tone of what I hear.  Speaking as an Englishman who is excruciatingly aware of the downsides of our national consciousness (right my English homies? You know what I’m talking about), there’s a love and a zest for life here which is downright inspiring. So can we stop with the national stereotypes? I’m tired of it. It’s old and boring. Yeah, yeah, there’s truth in some of them, but I’d rather live in a world where we’ve stopped calling each other names and perpetuating divisions; have grown the fuck up, realised we’re all basically the same and are in this together. C’mon guys, doesn’t that sound good? Oops. I ranted. Well, some things need saying.

Which brings me to the final aspect of love I wanted to touch upon. That of love for oneself. This is a tricky one, and I’m not sure about even attempting to explain what I’m getting at in relation to this post but I’ll try. I think what it boils down to is this: We spend so much of our lives just getting by. Doing the things we ‘have’ to do on a daily/weekly basis etc, etc. In this way, we tend to forget ourselves. To forget about, or at least sideline the things that feed us. That bring us happiness, growth and the sense that we are enjoying the life we have been given. We forget, or worse, become unable to give ourselves these things. That truly sucks. I think it is another significant cause of a lot of the ills in our society. The fact that so many of us are a little bit broken inside by the demands of modern life. If we can all find ways to lessen this feeling of shelving ourselves in order to attend to our ‘duties’ I believe we will be more fulfilled individuals, and a society comprised of fulfilled people will be a more fulfilled and better functioning society. Spending time in different countries, while not for everyone, is one of the things that nourishes me. So on a certain level, I see it as an act of love. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Well my friends. I think that’s all for now. It feels good to write. For myself, as a way of bringing some order out of the undercurrents of my internal life. For others, as a means of illuminating who I really am. I’m a reclusive so-and-so, and I’m aware that though there are some people who know me well, there are many, many more who really don’t. This is of my doing, and I’m sorry for it. I intend to cultivate the courage necessary to share more. Engage more. So that we may all know one another more fully. And Caitlin. This humble piece is also for you. Thank you for the gentle nudge I needed. You did it without even knowing. You’re the best.

In honour and gratitude, and with love

Ben x


A word about the photographs (mainly for my fellow nerds). They are mostly shot on film with either the Minolta CLE + 40mm Rokkor lens, or the Canonet QL17 which also has a 40mm lens. There are few digitals mixed in, shot on the X100f and edited to blend with the film stocks.